Kiwi cyclist George Bennett has missed out on a golden opportunity to take victory atop one of world cycling's most famous mountains.
Bennett finished seventh on stage 14 of the Giro d'Italia this morning, but had looked a legitimate chance to triumph atop the fearsome Monte Zoncolan, a brutal climb that features steep gradients of over 20 per cent.
Bennett was part of the breakaway which contested the stage victory, with only one team – Astana – particularly interested in chasing in the peloton. That – combined with superb riding in the breakaway from Bennett's Jumbo-Visma teammate Edoardo Affini - allowed the breakaway a sizeable buffer of over six minutes heading onto the mythical 14.3 kilometre climb.
One of the two climbers in the breakaway with world-class pedigree – Bauke Mollema the other – Bennett was at one stage a $1.80 favourite to win the stage with the live bookmakers, and it seemed he was playing a canny strategical game when he didn't immediately chase down the attacks of Jan Tratnik and Lorenzo Fortunato.
With the final three kilometres of the climb the toughest, it appeared Bennett and Mollema were smartly pacing their effort, but instead they kept losing time to the attackers and never regained it, with the unheralded Fortunato escaping from Tratnik to claim by far the biggest victory of his career.
"I haven't fully realised yet what I just did," the 25-year-old Fortunato said, having claimed his first victory in more than eight years, having last won as a junior.
Bennett, who is striving to become the first New Zealander to win a stage of the Giro, came home fifth from the breakaway, but was caught by two riders from the peloton, with race leader Egan Bernal and the improving Simon Yates riding by him in the final kilometre.
The 31-year-old rued doing too much work in the breakaway before the climb began, which combined with inclement weather left him short on power on the Zoncolan.
"Unfortunately I didn't have the legs to compete for the stage victory", Bennett said. "It was a really tough stage. We went full throttle from the start and there was a lot of headwind. We had to fight for every second to stay ahead. Edoardo was really strong and he deserves all the credit, because he made the difference on the flat. As a result I didn't have the power anymore at the beginning of the Zoncolan."
"We had a clear plan and that was to go for the stage win with George or Koen [Bouwman]", Jumbo-Visma sports director Arthur van Dongen added. "In the flat approach the plan was also to have Edoardo in the breakaway for support. That went perfectly according to plan. Edoardo did a fantastic job, but because Astana increased the pressure from behind it cost George, in particular, a little too much energy on the flat.
"He paid the price on the Zoncolan. That is a pity because normally such a climb suits him."
Bennett's ride moved him into 18th overall, and should still have leeway to participate in breakaways in the final week, as he is still 11 minutes and 48 seconds behind Bernal, who is storming away with the Giro.
Bernal responded to a late attack from Yates and then attacked the British rider in the fog at the summit to finish fourth and extend his overall lead to a significant one minute, 33 seconds ahead of Yates, who moved into second.
"I tried to remain calm when we tackled the Zoncolan because I knew I was in a good position in the GC and did not need to attack first," said Bernal. "I followed Simon Yates when he attacked and then I did an acceleration in the finale.
"I think I did a good race. Now I have a good lead but I need to remain calm and focused, anything can happen in the Giro."